Pursuing Terrorists in the Great Desert
In the early months of 2004, a lone convoy of Toyota pickup trucks and SUVs raced eastward across the southern extremities of the Sahara. The convoy, led by a wanted Islamic militant named Ammari Saifi, had just slipped from Mali into northern Niger, where the desert rolls out into an immense, flat pan of gravelly sand. Saifi, who has been called the "bin Laden of the Sahara," was traveling with about 50 jihadists, some from Algeria, the rest from nearby African countries such as Mauritania and Nigeria. There are virtually no roads in this part of the desert, but the convoy moved rapidly. For nearly half a year Saifi and his men had been the object of an international hunt coordinated by the United States military and conducted primarily by the countries that share the desert. Soldiers from Niger, assisted by American and Algerian special forces, had fought with Saifi twice in the past several weeks. Each time, the convoy escaped. Now it was heading further east, toward a remote mountain range in northern Chad.
At the time, Saifi was by far the most sophisticated and resourceful Islamic militant in North Africa and the Sahel, an expansive swath of territory that runs along the Sahara's southern fringe. In the Sahel, the Sahara's windswept dunes gradually reduce to semi-desert, and then, further south, become arid savanna. The terrain extends roughly 3,000 miles across Africafrom Senegal through Mauritania, Mali, Niger, Chad, and into Sudan. It is awesome in its scale, poverty, and lack of governance. Troubled by restive minorities, environmental degradation, economic collapse, coups, famine, genocide, and geographic isolation, the Sahel has been described by one top U.S. military commander as "a belt of instability." (Last year, the U.N. ranked Niger as having the world's worst living conditions; Mali and Chad were among the five worst.) The region is also home to some 70 million Muslims, and since 9-11 there have been reports that Islamic radicals from other parts of Africa, as well as from the Middle East and South Asia, are proselytizing there, or seeking refuge from their home countries, or simply attempting to wage jihad.
Saifi seemed to belong to this final, most worrying, category. He had spent much of his adult life trying to unseat the secular Algerian government, and in 2003 he orchestrated a terrorist act of stupendous bravado: taking 32 European adventure travelers hostage in the Algerian Sahara, shuttling half of them hundreds of miles south, into Mali, and after 177 days of captivity, exchanging the tourists for suitcases filled with 5 million euros in ransoman immense sum of money in the Sahel, by some estimates a quarter of Niger's defense budget. Most of the tourists were German, and the German government, which reportedly paid the ransom, filed an international arrest warrant for Saifi. The United States declared him a Specially Designated Global Terrorist, a classification shared by bin Laden and his senior commanders. The United Nations put his name on a roster known as "The New Consolidated List of Individuals and Entities Belonging to or Associated With the Taliban and Al-Qaida."
The hostage taking was not just brazen, it had strategic implications. Bin Laden's top lieutenant, Ayman al-Zawahiri, once noted that "a jihadist movement needs an arena that would act like an incubator where its seeds would grow and where it can acquire practical experience in combat, politics, and organizational matters," and it appeared that Saifi, with his loose connections to Al Qaeda, could make the Sahara's wild south just such a place. After releasing the hostages, Saifi remained in the Malian desert for several months, using the ransom to buy "new vehicles, lots of weapons," a U.S. intelligence officer told me. Saifi established an alliance with nomadic tribesmen by marrying the teenage daughter of a sheikh near the Mauritanian border, and soon enough his small militia had gained enough strength to give the Malian army a "bloody nose," a European diplomat in Mali said. For a decade, Saifi's organization, the Algeria-based Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, or GSPC, had killed scores of Algerian officials and soldiers; it was among the deadliest organizations in the world, with operatives in Europe and North America. Saifi appeared to be extending its reach further into Africa.
For the Defense Department, Saifi's activities became the central and most vivid justification for expanding the U.S. military presence in the Sahel. In 2004, American Special Forces and Marines visited Mauritania, Mali, Chad, and Niger to train local armies how to bring order to the desert, and that program will grow this year. Meanwhile, covertly, the American military experimented with a new form of battle. Some analysts call it "netwar"an innovative melding of U.S. intelligence and manpower with local forces. Netwar, according to its proponents, promises to be an effective way to fight terrorists, but it also risks causing political chaos, or worse, lethal military confusion. The hunt for Saifi may be one of its most important modern prototypes.
While senior U.S. military commanders monitored Saifi's growing influence in the Sahel, they pressured the Malian government to take aggressive action. According to a U.N. official, the Malian government was hesitant to attack the convoy because it "feared that the GSPC might retaliate." A former U.S. diplomat in the region said the Defense Department was "unhappy because basically, the Malians haven't gone and kicked butt in the desert." Where Mali's impoverished army was too timid, or unable, to act, the U.S. military stepped in. American Navy P-3 Orion reconnaissance aircraft, dispatched from Italy, tracked Saifi's movements, and U.S. "military experts," according to a local press report, conducted operations on the ground. American military teams in northern Mali helped Algerian and local security forces chase Saifi's militia into Niger, where they engaged in several gunfights. They found that the convoy, though battered, was well equipped for desert warfare. Saifi had fitted the vehicles with GPS navigational devices that enabled his men to locate secret caches of water and supplies in the vast, uninhabited stretches of desert. In truck beds, 12.7mm machine guns and 14.5mm Russian anti-aircraft guns threatened adversaries that approached by land and air.
With the multinational force closing in, and American reconnaissance planes observing from above, Saifi's convoy raced across Niger toward the Chadian border. As the vehicles pushed forward, weapons rattled in their mountings and the roar of engines cut through the desert silence. Stray rocks and loose sand battered the vehicles' exteriors. Windshields clouded over with sediment. During a recent battle, fire had damaged some gear, and certain electrical devices began to fail. One truck broke down near a forlorn place in Niger known as the Tree of Ténéré, where an ancient and solitary acacia once stood. The truck was abandoned. Occasionally, if Saifi believed there was time for prayer, he might stop the convoy. At these moments, his men would walk some way from the trucks, lay in a row their small woven rugs over the ocher dust, shriveled scrub, and stones, and bow toward Mecca. Sometimes, as they prayed, fierce winds would blow through the folds of their desert gowns, and the sun would cast their shadows across the sand.
In the desert mountains, Chadian rebels proved more adept than government soldiers.
photo: Alvaro Canovas/Paris Match/Gamma
The American most attentively following the convoy's trajectory as it approached the jagged foothills of Chad's Tibesti Mountains was arguably Charles F. Wald, a four-star Air Force general and the deputy commander of U.S. European Command in Stuttgart, Germany. European Command oversees American troops and military operations in 91 countries, from Europe to the former Soviet Union to Africa. Wald is a former F-15 fighter pilot who has flown missions in Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Iraq, and Bosnia, and is known as a forward-thinking strategist and a man who is quick to speak his mind. (Recently, he announced that the Pentagon might soon begin working with Libyaa prediction that, he later kidded, provoked a reprimand from the military's public affairs office, but which he holds to be true.) In the 1980s, Wald headed a counterterrorism center for the Air Force. After the 9-11 attacks, he became a key architect in developing the Pentagon's new strategy for northern, western, and southern Africa.
The United States began taking an interest in the security problems of North Africa and the Sahel not long after 9-11. In 2002, State Department officials were monitoring terrorist groups worldwide and determined that people and money with "links" to Al Qaeda had been moving into the region. The links seemed to be small and isolated, but the State Department believed that, if ignored, they could lead to an entrenched Al Qaeda presence. After all, from 1992 to 1996, bin Laden had operated from the Sahel, in Sudan. And so the officials approached Wald and other members of European Command with a proposal to deploy U.S. forces to the region. As Wald would later recall, the logic behind the program was: "Where there's smoke, there's fireand one of the lessons we've learned [from Afghanistan] is you can't wait for the problem to become large and then address it." Wald has called for better intelligence on African terrorism, and for U.S. operatives to "infiltrate" the countries that share the desert "so we can get into their environment."
Some State Department officials said that European Command began with an inappropriately aggressive strategy. For instance, in 2002 the two sides fought bitterly over aerial bombing missions that the military had drawn up for the region. A Pentagon official told me that these missions were never "serious options." But on at least one occasion, military strategists in Germany clashed with the State Department over how to deal with an Algerian militant named Mokhtar Belmokhtar, "The One-Eyed." Mokhtar had ties to the GSPC, and for years had run a transnational smuggling and banditry operation from the deserts of northern Mali. The U.S. military believed that after 9-11 Mokhtar was recruiting and arming religious radicals in the area; it wanted to attack his camps. The State Department argued that the intelligence on Mokhtar was not conclusive, and the American embassy in Mali insisted that an air strike on Mokhtar would "radicalize people you don't want to radicalize," according to a U.S. government official in the Sahel. In the end, the attack was called off. Vicki Huddleston, who was then U.S. ambassador to Mali, said that rather than arming terrorists, Mokhtar was supporting the Kunta Arabs, a nomadic group that was fighting other desert tribes. Huddleston has since retired from government, and declined to discuss her official conversations with European Command, but when asked about the dispute, she said, "If you're correct that we discouraged [the Defense Department], it was a good thing. If we had bombed a bunch of Kuntas, I think the whole place would have gone crazy. They're certainly not terrorists."
Still, the information on Mokhtar's activities was worrying, and taken with other intelligence from the region, it said a great deal about the Sahel's vulnerabilities. In October 2002 an American counterterrorism team visited Chad, Niger, Mali, and Mauritania to invite those countries into a program called the Pan Sahel Initiative. The program was officially "designed to protect borders, track the movement of people, combat terrorism, and enhance regional cooperation and stability." Small groups of Special Forces and Marines, operating under European Command, would deploy to each state, where they would train select, 150-man companies. They would provide the African troops with equipment, such as night-vision goggles, ammunition, and communications gear. They would facilitate military cooperation by putting the region's top defense chiefs in touch with each other. (Within the Sahel, open channels of communication between militaries barely exist.) They would, essentially, lay the foundation for a network that could stymie the growth of regional terrorism. The four countries were eager to participate, and the Pan Sahel Initiative was budgeted for roughly $6.5 million for its first year. Initially, it seemed like an abstract, preventative exercise, but as preparations were under way circumstances on the ground changed. In early 2003, news emerged that Saifi had kidnapped the 32 tourists. Suddenly the initiative's planners had a real target. Wald has called the hostage taking a "blessing in disguise." It provided European Command with not only an important test case, but also the strongest argument for its newfound mission in Africa.
At first, no one knew what had happened to the 32 Europeans. The men and womenGerman, Austrian, Swiss, and Dutchwere traveling on motorcycles and in trucks, in scattered groups along the faint pistes that cut across badlands near Illizi, an oasis town in eastern Algeria. They were drawn to the Sahara for its savage beauty, its promise of isolation and adventure, and a chance to explore what one geologist describes as "landscapes of cliffs shaped like the bizarre towers and bridges of a dream city; valleys in which thousand-year-old trees flourish; deep lakes in whose untroubled surface palm crests are mirrored; golden sand dunes, beetles, lizards, and gazelles." The Sahara has man-made monuments too, isolated oil rigs and the military outposts that protect them. When Saifi and his men rounded up the travelers among such places, he did not announce it; the Europeans simply disappeared. Under the cover of night, as he shuttled hostages to various hideouts, he unveiled another Saharan vistaone as perilous as any sandstorm: the desert's chaotic political order.
Rainer Bracht, an engineer from Detmold, Germany, was with three companions, located about a day's journey by motorcycle west of Illizi, when the first sign of trouble emerged. It was late afternoon. Bracht and his friends had decided to camp behind a dune a hundred or so yards from the piste. ("You go away from the track so that nobody can see you," he explained. "In this area, there were bandits who stole cars from oil companies.") The setting sun cast intense hues across the sky. The men took photos. They pitched tents. Then Bracht walked a few paces from the encampment to relax beneath a tree. At one point, he peered over the dune and noticed three motorbikes and several Toyota pickups approaching the camp. The scene seemed wrong. The vehicles were overloaded with men. The men on the motorcycles were without helmets, and had "long beards and Kalashnikovs and things like this." The pickup trucks were bristling with weapons, including a large, mounted machine gun. Bracht kept still. These were jihadists, he thought. Then he said to himself, "Oh, this isn't good."
The jihadists quickly took over the camp. It was a surreally quiescent abduction. Bracht and his friends did not resist. The jihadists behaved calmly. In fact, barely anyone said a word. As the fighters confiscated the motorcycles and equipment, one man stood apart from the rest. It was Saifi. "He was tall, much taller than most of the others," Bracht remembered. "He commanded great respect. He didn't talk much, but when he gave orders, the men performed them without question." Saifi wore an orange headscarf and a long curly beard. He spoke in soft Arabic, and when he conversed with the Europeans, he insisted on using a translator, even though he was fluent in French, a language everyone understood. The first thing Saifi said was: "We have no problems." He assured Bracht and his friends that they would not find harm. Later, en route to a haven where the other hostages were being kept, several fighters explained what Saifi intended to do. "They said that they wanted money for us because they were fighting the Algerian government," Bracht said. "Their original plan was to buy weapons in Niger, but then they noticed that there were a lot of tourists in the area, and they decided to kidnap some of the tourists for money, because, of course, with more money you can get more weapons."
Saifi fell into jihad the way many Algerian militants of his generation did. He was born in an Algerian town called Kef el-Rih, meaning "ravine of the wind," in the late 1960s, not long after Algeria's war for independence. His mother is French; his father, a villager from the Aurés Mountains. In 1988, at the age of 20, he joined the Algerian military, perhaps the country's most secular institution. He trained to become a paratrooper, "but after a year, he left because of back problems," said Cherif Ouazani, a North Africa specialist with Jeune Afrique L'Intelligent, the French journal of African affairs. One year with the paratroopers was enough to earn Saifi the nom de guerre "al Para," and he quickly entered the ranks of Algeria's growing Islamist movement, just as economic and political pressures forced the government to open the floodgates of democracy. The constitution was rewritten, political parties were allowed to organize, and national elections were scheduled. But the abrupt political transition quickly turned into disaster. Those first free elections, in 1991, brought the country's main religious party, the Islamic Salvation Front, or FIS, into a position of political dominance. This was something Algeria's generals would not tolerate. The army staged a coup, ejected the president responsible for the reforms from office, and banned the FIS.
The Islamists, for their part, went underground. They launched an insurgency to take by force the political power they felt was rightfully theirs. Out of this mess evolved one of modern history's most savage rebel movements: the Armed Islamic Group, or GIA, which by 1996 had declared total war, not simply against the government, but against anyone who did not support the GIA. In Algeria, there could be no neutrality. The rebelssome of them veterans of the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistanslaughtered entire villages they deemed insufficiently sympathetic to their cause. The government responded brutally in kind. During the 1990s, more than 150,000 Algerians perished in the fighting. As many as 7,000 people were disappeared. Saifi's political and religious awakening developed within this charnel house of violence. He had joined the FIS, but as the violence spiraled out of control, he began to drift toward a circle of rebels who, in the late 1990s, called for a more disciplined strategy. These rebels gained support from Islamists overseas. A prominent fundamentalist cleric in London denounced the GIA's conduct. Osama bin Laden agreed, and decided to throw his support behind the new faction, which soon became the GSPC.
Wald has called the hostage taking a 'blessing in disguise.' European Command had not only an important test case but also the strongest argument for its newfound mission in Africa.
Bin Laden had pragmatic reasons for involving himself in Algeria's civil war. While in Sudan, he had dispatched emissaries throughout the continent to learn where and how to support Muslim militants. "As for enlarging the scope of Al Qaeda in Africa, that is true," bin Laden's former bodyguard told the London newspaper Al-Quds Al-Arabi, adding that bin Laden followed "events in all the states near Sudan or surrounding it, such as the events in Libya, Algeria, Yemen, Somalia, Eritrea, and Egypteven events in Liberia, although it is a faraway country in West Africa." Algeria was particularly significant because French support for the government offered an opportunity to engage the West. Rohan Gunaratna, the author of Inside Al Qaeda, said bin Laden hoped that by supporting the Algerian militants he might one day co-opt their cells in Europe. Michael Scheuer, the CIA's former top bin Laden analyst, said there were two main reasons for bin Laden's interest in Algeria: "One was the extraordinary violence, the indiscriminate violence of the GIA. The second was that bin Laden wantedin many Muslim countriesto destroy the nationalist orientation of local Islamic groups."
The GSPC eventually subsumed the GIA, and after 9-11 its leadership announced that it fully supported Al Qaeda in the "jihad against the heretic America." GSPC cells in North America and Europe are suspected to have played important roles in Al Qaeda plots, including the Madrid bombings. European Command believes that Islamists from North Africa have joined the Iraqi insurgency in significant numbers. This year, suspected terrorists arrested in Morocco claimed that North African Islamic groups were converging to form a movement "under the Al Qaeda leadership with a single organization for Morocco and Algeria," according to Olivier Guitta, a Washington-based terrorism analyst.
As these developments unfolded, Saifi expanded his influence within Algeria's insurgency. By 2000, he had become the GSPC's chief commander for northeastern Algeria, a crucial stronghold. His target remained the Algerian government. (In a rare interview, with the French journalist Patrick Forestier, he explained: "Our objective is to change the regime through jihad.") But he also appears to have had dealings with Al Qaeda. Forestier told me that Saifi once boasted he knew the satellite phone number for al-Zawahiri. In 2001, after the GSPC suffered significant setbacks, a Yemeni Al Qaeda envoy reportedly met with Saifi in Algeria. Selma Belaala, a scholar of North African jihadist movements at the Institut d'Études Politiques in Paris, said the envoy had toured the Sahara and the Sahel hoping to "find a place where Islamic militants could not be attacked," but Algerian forces assassinated him in September 2002. Weeks later they delivered "harsh blows" to Saifi's operation, killing Saifi's "right-hand man and mufti," according to Algerian press reports. Several months after that battle, Saifi committed the hostage taking and fled into the desert. Kidnapping the tourists was atypical for the GSPC, and it is true, there were easier ways to raise money and weapons. Scheuer speculates that Saifi may have wanted to boldly demonstrate that the GSPC was not beaten. Another possibility is that he was heeding a 2002 recommendation from Al Qaeda's leadership to attack "the enemy's tourist industry" because it "includes easy targets with major economic, political, and security importance," and because its impact can sometimes surpass "an attack against an enemy warship."
With pressure from the Algerian government intensifying in the Sahara, in July Saifi moved Bracht and the other European hostages into northern Mali. As he shifted his operations further south, the U.S. military kept its distance. The United States provided Algeria with intelligence, but as one American diplomat who then served in Algeria told me, "Keep in mind the time frame. This was only a couple of months after the Iraq invasion. The main nationality among the hostages was German, and the Germans wanted us to keep it hands-off, at least publicly." After Saifi released the hostages in Mali, in mid August, there was no more danger of getting in the German government's way. Wald invited the Sahel's defense chiefs to Germany, in part to develop a plan to capture Saifi. The men gathered in a wood-paneled conference room at European Command's headquarters, where "the chief of defense from Niger met the chief of defense from Chad, and that's the first time they'd ever talked to each other in their lives," Wald has said. The men discussed Saifi's movements. The Malian defense chief was also at the meeting, and immediately afterward he went with Wald to a phone and called Mali to start up "coordinating operations."
The full extent of Mali's counterterrorism coordination with the United States is unclear. Publicly, the Defense Department denies sending anyone into the Sahel for purposes other than military training. "We didn't have any forces on the ground," Colonel Vic Nelson, the director of West Africa policy at the Pentagon, said when asked if U.S. troops assisted in the hunt for Saifi. But a defense official from Niger confirmed that U.S. special operations forces, working with their Algerian counterparts, had tracked Saifi in the desert, during his race from Mali through Niger to Chad, and that Americans were present during at least one fight. Similarly, two Malian officials said that uniformed and plainclothed Americans had fanned out through the northern reaches of the country for a span of about six months. Meanwhile, just over the Malian border in Algeria, small teams of elite U.S. troops hunted GSPC fighters, and even "put up some kind of infrastructure," according to The Boston Globe. In other parts of the Sahel, Peace Corps volunteers encountered American soldiers traveling in small units to remote villages, far from training bases.
In March 2004, Africa Analysis Ltd., a British firm that issues subscription-based bulletins on security and economic issues in Africa, reported that there was "gossip" among intelligence experts in Washington that 200 U.S. special-operations forces were in the Sahel for a range of clandestine missions, including "electronic surveillance, coordinating human intelligence with satellite data, and calling in computer-guided air strikes." The report noted that the operatives were assisting in the hunt for Saifi, and that the Pan Sahel Initiative was at least partly "cover" for such activities. It went on to say that some former Special Forces were "adamant" that the "public face [of the initiative was] only part of the story." A former Bush administration official familiar with security issues in the Sahel told me that in late 2003 the U.S. military engaged in "a joint effort" with the Malian army to ambush Islamic militants somewhere near the border with Algeria. This would have occurred when Saifi had just begun operating there. "Our guys were advising," he explained. The former official also suggested that other secret missions had been conducted during that time period. "Rumsfeld had his goons running all over the continent," he said.
When Saifi's convoy finally crossed from Niger into Chad's rugged Tibesti Mountains, it found itself cornered by a small contingent of Chadian soldiers. The two sides fought an intense battle, one that would last for three days. When the Defense Department learned that the Chadian military had intercepted Saifi and his men, orders were rushed to Ramstein Air Base in Germany to prepare two heavy C-130 Hercules aircraft with roughly 20 tons of aid for the Chadian army. Normally, it takes two days for the Air Force to prepare such a mission. Ramstein had to have the planes in the air immediately. There was danger that Saifi might flee again. The convoy had reportedly backed into a large cave for cover, and the soldiers had taken lossesthree killed and 16 injured. The Chadian soldiers were ill equipped, with little food, ammunition, or medical supplies. In contrast, Saifi and his men were well armed, with rocket-propelled grenades, automatic rifles, ammunition, night-vision goggles, and advanced communications gear. Ramstein had the C-130s airborne in one hour, and 10 hours later, the planes approached an austere military outpost in northern Chad, the Faya-Largeau Airport.
As the pilots prepared to land, the limitations of the Chadian military became evident. Brush and sand encroached on the tarmac. In the 100-degree heat, three dozen Chadian soldiers rushed to help unload the C-130s, but doing the job by hand would be disastrously slow. The crew performed an improvised "offload" and the supplies were rushed to the front. By the battle's end, the soldiers had killed or captured 43 militants. But Saifi and some of his men, once again, slipped away. Hungry, destitute, and uncertain of their precise location, the militants wandered off on foot, only to confront further hardships. In Tibesti's desert mountainssome as high as 10,000 feetthere are virtually no natural sources of food or water. The region is controlled by a secular rebel group known as the Movement for Democracy and Justice in Chad, or MDJT, which has been fighting the Chadian government since 1998. It wasn't long before the rebels found Saifi, put him in chains, and announced that the Sahara's most notorious hostage taker had, himself, been taken hostage.
This is the second installment of a two-part investigation into the hunt for Ammari Saifi, a legendary desert jihadist whose organization, known as the GSPC, has ties to Al Qaeda. Part one describes how Saifi was pursued across the Sahara and into the Sahel, a poorly governed stretch of semi-desert and savanna that runs through Mauritania, Mali, Niger, and Chad. Local forces, supported by American "military experts," pushed Saifi from Mali, through Niger, and into Chad's Tibesti Mountains, where he was captured by a group of rebels belonging to the Movement for Democracy and Justice in Chad, or MDJT. Meanwhile, across the Sahel, U.S. Special Forces and Marines, led by General Charles F. Wald, began a new military training program, the Pan Sahel Initiative, designed to help these countries bring order to the world's largest desert.
In April 2004, while MDJT rebels kept Saifi handcuffed in a small cave near one of their mountain encampments, General Wald gave a talk at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) in Washington. Saifi was still technically at large, but Wald was optimistic about what the U.S. had done in Chad and Niger to pursue him. In his speech, Wald sketched out an ambitious African security plan. The current military cooperation across the Sahel, he indicated, might serve as a precursor for a transnational army. "The irony of all ironies is that Muammar Qaddafi, at the African Union meeting in Tripoli, about a month ago or so, recommended a 1 million- person standing army in Africa," he said. "Now I think that's crazy, don't get me wrong." But a bit later, Wald went on to suggest that establishing five 3,000-man brigades from various African military units might be a good way to police the continent. "That's a great thing," he noted. "We need to help encourage that. We need to help train that." Wald then laid out European Command's operating principle. "Our approach is basically to help Africans help themselves," he said. "Use nontraditional approaches that most people pretty much gag on, get over the stovepipes, quit worrying about who gets credit."
European Command will be expanding its role in the region during the next several years. With the Pentagon reconfiguring its global distribution of personnel and resources, the U.S. military has been combing Africa for suitable "forward operating locations" and other installations for temporary use. (The Moroccan newspaper Al-Ahdath Al-Maghribia recently reported that the United States was collecting intelligence from a clandestine "listening" station in the Algerian Sahara; last year, ABC News revealed that the CIA was using a secret detention center "in the North African desert.") Meanwhile, the Pan Sahel Initiative is being augmented: Its funding for this year was raised to $30 million, five other countriesAlgeria, Morocco, Tunisia, Senegal, and Nigeriawill participate, and in the spirit of its more extensive geographic scope, it has been renamed the Trans Saharan Counterterrorism Initiative. In 2007, Congress will likely expand the program's budget to $70 million, and by 2012, it is expected to have allocated half a billion dollars. The military is also using its own funding to conduct bolder operations in the region. Last summer, hundreds of Special Forces visited more than half a dozen countries that share the Sahara for Operation Flintlock, another training mission. A military spokesperson called Flintlock "the largest joint military exercise between African nations and the United States since World War II."
General Wald may be a key architect for programs like Flintlock and the Pan Sahel Initiative, but the doctrine behind these projects is perhaps best articulated by John Arquilla, a professor of defense analysis at the Naval Postgraduate School, in Monterey, California. Arquilla's concept, called "netwar," is one that he and another military strategist, David Ronfeldt, have been developing since before 9-11. To combat Al Qaeda, Arquilla has argued, the United States and its allies must learn to develop the structural fluidity of terrorist organizations; they must function like Al Qaeda, or Colombian drug cartels, or the anarchist Black Bloc, which rioted with destructive effectiveness during the 1999 WTO summit in Seattle. Last year, Seymour Hersh noted in The New Yorker that, based upon this strategy, "a few pilot covert operations" had occurred, including the hunt for Saifi, and that this was possible because changing rules at the Pentagon enabled the military to send secret "action teams" overseas.
"In this first great war between networks and nations, it behooves the latter to form their own networksfor it is growing ever clearer that it takes a network to fight a network," Arquilla explained in a policy review for the Institute of Public Affairs, in Australia. "'Networking,' in this instance, consists of widespread sharing of information and cooperation in the field between intelligence, military, and law enforcement organizations in all countries involved. It means preemptive attacks will result from shared intelligence and will feature multi-national assault forces. It means that nobody leads, but rather that all strive together toward a common goal." Small, specialized military or paramilitary units commanded by the United States and other countries would work in coordination to "swarm the enemy" with multiple highly targeted attacks. In instances where an element of confusion is required, American and allied network participants might even be indistinguishable from their adversaries. The strategy, Arquilla says, gives the Defense Department the opportunity to keep a low profile in politically volatile areas; it also "takes the initiative militarily and yet still strengthens the global coalition of nations allied in the fight against terror networks."
There is undoubtedly something to this. The U.S. military is not in a position to police the globe, and it certainly is not in a position to invest a great deal of its resources in places like the Sahel, which do not yet constitute a grave and immediate danger. And while the "netwar" concept does conserve American manpower and does give the American military flexibility and political cover, it raises important practical and ethical questions. The most obvious among them is reliability. If a "nobody leads" network fails then nobody is leading; or to put it differently, for every successful WTO protest that comes out of nowhere, numerous others fall by the wayside because they do not properly self-organize. Reliability, of course, also depends upon each participant, not just the network as a whole. Afghan fighters, for instance, working under the guidance of U.S. Special Forces, proved to be woefully ineffective during the battle at Tora Bora, allowing Al Qaeda's top leaders to escape into Pakistan. In Mali, while tracking Saifi and his men, the Defense Department encountered similar problems; a counterterrorism official familiar with the Sahel drove home the point when he said, "U.S. intelligence on terrorists was provided to the Malian government and then was later found among Saifi's people, in the hands of the very militants the government was supposedly targeting."
A U.S. soldier trains forces in Mali.
photo: Sgt. Leah A. Cobble/Newscom
The limits of U.S. intelligence raises another important question about netwar's effectiveness. Identifying clear targets in places like North Africa and the Sahel, where political rebellion, common criminality, and international terrorism merge seamlessly, may be not only difficult, but impossible. Xavier Raufer, a terrorism expert at the University of Paris, told me that many GSPC fighters were essentially "bandits by day, jihadists by night." In his writings, Raufer refers to "hybrid groups" composed of such militantsmen like Saifi, or Mokhtar Belmokhtarwho operate within "melting pots of crime" that "blend religious fanaticism, famine, massacres, piracy at sea, or airline hijacking with [the] trafficking of human beings, drugs, arms, toxic substances, or gems." These men are experts at exploiting the political and economic vulnerabilities of their societies: Black-market activities like cigarette and gun smuggling fuel their operations, but those same black markets also serve as important sources of income for people who live in the most desolate and impoverished reaches of the Sahara. A netwar-type strike that brings down the wrong militant, or even the right one, might curtail regional smuggling, but with no economic alternatives in place, it will likely strand and anger the very people the United States is trying to win over in the Muslim world.
Some Africa specialists complain that since 9-11 the United States has wrongfully collapsed the Sahel's manifold problems into an all-too-simple issue: hunting bad guys. "We are exaggerating the whole terrorism thing," said Robert Pringle, a former ambassador to Mali. Benjamin Soares, an anthropologist at the African Studies Centre in Leiden, Holland, agreed. "There is some hysteria about the terrorist threat in the Sahel," he said. "Heads need to be cooler." Similar views can be found in Washington, where a number of people said that European Command had a bureaucratic imperative to cast militant Islam in the region as an impending danger. A retired CIA specialist in counterterrorism told me that European Command had its "nose out of joint" because the main theaters of the war on terrorism fell under Central Command, the division responsible for American forces in Afghanistan and Iraq. A former U.S. diplomat who worked closely with the Defense Department said, "I mean, for European Command, when they tore down the Berlin Wall, a lot of their missions evaporatedso it's a matter of having resources [allocated by Congress] and then trying to find missions to justify them." A State Department official familiar with the military's Saharan strategy called it "a hammer looking for a nail."
Still, no matter what motivates European Command, there are good reasons to keep a careful eye on the region. During Saifi's push into southern Algeria, and then into Mali, Niger, and Chad, he left behind, in each country, a kind of organizational imprint. "What he did was set up a fantastic structure," Selma Belaala, a North Africa specialist, said. "It can be activated whenever it's needed." This is possibly one reason why the 9-11 Commission Report cites Mali as a potential haven for terrorists; Islamists from Saudi Arabia and Pakistan have been targeting key Malian communities for conversion to the most radical forms of Islam, and tellingly much of that activity is occurring in parts of the country where the government has little or no control. As William J. Foltz, a professor of African studies at Yale and a former member of the National Intelligence Council, explained: "If you take the whole Sahel, it's not a threat in the sense that it's going to declare war on the United States, but the United States generally pays a price if there is great disorder going in some part of the world." Such places, in fact, have been a topic of intense discussion throughout the Defense Department since the end of the Cold War. Thomas Barnett, a military theorist whose ideas are popular within European Command, argues that societies cut off from globalization constitute a dangerous "non-integrating gap." He says that their "disconnectedness is the ultimate enemy"the root cause of myriad political ills and threatsand that the United States' primary national security objective should be to "shrink the gap." Wald has framed this notion as "the problem of ungoverned spaces," and Wald's superior, General James Jones, demonstrated a competent understanding of how the problem could be solved when he told Congress: "I think the only way to halt the trends that we see going on with the migration of radical fundamentalism [into the Sahel] is to give people some alternative. And the alternative is not just military dictatorship and oppression. The alternative is education, jobs, and market development. And this is where, if we turn our focus onat least in those areas that warrant itI think we can make dramatic changes in a short period of time."
General Charles F. Wald
photo: Sani Mohammed
If fighting a netwar requires working with effective partners, and if the Sahel doesn't have many, then it should not come as a shock that European Command is becoming increasingly involved in training and equipping the region's militaries. Not long ago, General Carlton Fulford, who retired from European Command in 2002, explained just how much work needed to be done. On an official trip to Mali, he inspected a military outpost near Algeria. "You've got 30 Malian soldiers with their families," Fulford told me. "It's basically a 'camel corps' and their job is to monitor the border." Fulford did some math in his head; the border was roughly 750 miles long. "It basically took them a year to cover," he went on, "if they even ended up covering all of it." After his visit to the frontier, he met with the Malian president and asked how the camel corps could be effective in so vast and desolate an area. "Those regions are tribal," the president replied. "No one comes in without me knowing." As Fulford told the story, he paused to consider that last statement. He understood the importance of local knowledge, he said, but "it's going to take a bit more than that."
The Saharathe world's largest desert, an expanse of 3.5 million square mileswould be a logistical nightmare for even the most advanced and well-trained fighting forces to patrol. And while the netwar concept may be new, the job of building up foreign militaries in such difficult places is an old one. The United States helped build up paramilitaries, armies, and elite presidential security services during the Cold War. The policy then was driven by the logic of containing, and later rolling back, the Soviet Union. In the 1980s, Ronald Reagan pledged to fight Communism "on every continent, from Afghanistan to Nicaragua," and American dollars poured into the treasuries of proxy guerrillas and client states worldwide. U.S. military support in places like Latin America and Africa stemmed from a common political calculus: If fighting Communism required aiding anti-Communist despots, or if it necessitated other forms of dirty work, so be it; the struggle between the two superpowers made the compromise of certain ideals unavoidable.
During the Cold War, CIA station chiefs in Africa provided sympathetic dictators and autocrats with actual laminated menu cards that offered a spectrum of equipment and services. William Casey, Reagan's spymaster, kept a list of 12 client states that were of importance to him. Chad, Sudan, and Liberia were on the list. King Hassan II, of Morocco, remained in power for 22 years with the help of U.S. covert aid. Casey's basic assistance package included training for the leader's personal security force, as well as for the country's intelligence service. In addition, the CIA provided "allies" with material support, including automatic weapons, handguns, walkie-talkies, even helicopters. These transactions too often flowed from dysfunctional political relationships. Many recipients of Cold War American aid had every reason to hype the threat of Communism as a way to escalate their importance in combating the Soviet Union. Conversely, the United States downplayed anti- Communist human rights abuses overseas when it meant that it could gain a better foothold in that part of the globe.
U.S. military assistance in the Sahel may be falling into a similar pattern. Last year, Mauritania's president, Maaouya Ould Sid Ahmed Taya, a participant in the Pan Sahel Initiative, frequently branded his opponents as extremists in the mold of Al Qaeda. When, in 2003, several Mauritanians unsuccessfully attempted to overthrow Ould Taya's regime, a diplomat in country told researchers with the International Crisis Group: "The government wanted to present the coup attempt as evidence of international terrorism threatening Mauritania. My view is that it was just a sign of the battle between rival clans for power. Ould Taya has been ruling the country for about 20 years. Virtually all the main revenue-generating positions in the public administration are held by the president's relatives. Other people and clans, including in the security sector, are frustrated and want their share of power and resources." In August, two months after U.S. Special Forces were in Mauritania training Ould Taya's soldiers, a junta finally ejected him from power. If there were any doubts that the United States supported Ould Taya's regime, they vanished when the State Department criticized the coup and called for his peaceful reinstatement.
"In most of these countries, political opposition is classified as terrorism," a regional analyst told me. "When you do that, when you mix the two, you can use troops to do anything." This appears to be occurring in Chad too, where Marines spent two months training soldiers in a base south of the capital, N'Djamena. Power in Chad is concentrated in the hands of an ethnic minority, the Zaghawa, led by President Idriss Deby, who commanded a coup in 1990 and has held on to power ever since. According to the State Department, Deby has created a "culture of impunity for a ruling minority," and his "security forces have committed extra-judicial killings and continued to torture, beat, and rape persons." Deby has warded off several coup attempts, including one in 2004 that reportedly involved members of his inner clan and hundreds of soldiers. A senior U.S. Embassy official in N'Djamena told me that Deby, for all intents and purposes, was using the American-trained troops to solidify his hold on power. The men were sent out whenever there was a hint of rebellion, he said: "I call it coup patrol."
Perhaps the most worrying of America's new military partners in the region is Algeria. According to Wald, European Command is working "heavily" with the Algerian government. When asked about Algeria's contribution to the war on terrorism, Wald has said, "I think they're doing a fantastic job," and that the U.S. military has "a lot to learn from the Algerians." But as Tom Malinowski, the Washington advocacy director of Human Rights Watch, recently told the House of Representatives: "In human rights terms, Algeria, with its documented record of torture and 'disappearances,' is in many ways a model of how not to fight terrorism." During Algeria's long-running struggle with the GSPC and other Islamic insurgents, Malinowski explained, "security forces arrested and tortured thousands of suspects. They engaged in summary executions, often rounding up victims arbitrarily in reprisal for attacks on their own troops. And between 1993 and 1997, they picked up and made 'disappear' an estimated 7,000 Algerians who remain unaccounted for until this day." An irony that seemed to be lost on Wald was that this kind of political violence was largely responsible for propelling men like Saifi into the world of terrorism in the first place.
By the end of 2004 it appeared as though Saifi might languish in Chad's Tibesti Mountains indefinitely. Brahim Tchouma, an MDJT leader, told me by satellite phone that he had tried, in vain, to turn Saifi over to the United States. "I personally made several overtures to the American ambassador in Paris," he said, "but the embassy put me in touch with someone who didn't want to listen. He kept saying, 'No, no, no. I don't deal with that.' He kept saying that his department was not responsible for that sort of thing. That's when I let it go. I figured that the Americans could do whatever they wanted with the information that I had given to them, and I called The New York Times." Eventually, Saifi was handed over to Libya, which in turn passed him along to Algeria, where he stood trial last year. In June, a jury in Algiers pronounced Saifi guilty of forming a terrorist group and "propagating terror among a population." He received a life sentence. The Algerian government has kept many details about the trial secret, and it is unclear whether Saifi will be extradited to Germany or anywhere else. An official at European Command told me, "Personally, I think he's probably dead, or wishes he was."
Not long before the verdict, I visited Mali to follow up on what the United States was doing in the Sahel. Since the war in Iraq, talk of a heightened terrorist threat in the region was occurring against a dismaying backdrop: The Sahel's economic difficulties appeared to be on the rise too. Locust plagues had affected crop yields. Same with drought. As was widely reported last year, famine in Niger scarred the lives of hundreds of thousands of people. The leaders of European Command say that they recognize that the military can only be of limited help on such issues. (The Defense Department has spent $20 million in AIDS programs throughout the continent.) "Africa's problems are not going to be solved by the United States military," Wald said at AEI. "They can't be." And he is correct especially in the Sahel. But because no other U.S. agency is paying much attention to what is happening in the region, it is the military that has come to define what the United States is doing in this part of the world. USAID, for instance, has an office in only one of the four countries that participated in the Pan Sahel Initiative, and money for non-military projects has been scarce. In 2003, bilateral American aid to Mali, Mauritania, Niger, and Chad averaged less than $3 per person.
European Command says that future missions across the Great Desert will have important humanitarian components to them. But the job goes far beyond the military's capabilities. Barnett points out that the United States must export "justice as much as order" and, more importantly, ensure that the world's poorest, most isolated societies have greater economic opportunities. "That is how you turn a 'heroic' terrorist into a common criminal: you surround him with a society deeply connected to the larger world of rules, opportunity, and hope," Barnett explains in his book The Pentagon's New Map. "You render him an outcast among his own. You shame him out of existence. What you cannot do is simply catch him and kill him, because there will always be more. Over time, your violence will be delegitimized and his honored, unless yours is employed on behalf of a society growing in connectivity. Your effort must be intimately identified with that growing connectivity; your war must be in the context of everything else."
Raffi Khatchadourian's previous work for the Voice includes the five-part series "Path of a Pipeline," about Caspian Sea oil. While researching this story he was a visiting fellow at Johns Hopkins UniversitySAIS, with support from the International Reporting Project.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Village Voice's biggest stories.